LIKE IT IS:

This year, at least, NIT not such a bad thing

By: Wally Hall
Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014
Arkansas players sit on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in the second round of the Southeastern Conference men's tournament, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Arkansas players sit on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in the second round of the Southeastern Conference men's tournament, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Arkansas fell from No. 59 to No. 73 in the RPI after losing to South Carolina on Thursday, and by Saturday morning the Hogs had slipped to No. 75.

No team with an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) above 67 has made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In fact, only four teams with a rating above 60 have ever made it as an at-large team.

So it appears that Arkansas, which won six consecutive games before stumbling at the end against Alabama and South Carolina, is headed to the NIT.

Admittedly, the NIT has been referred to as the National Insignificant Tournament more times than not in this space, but that was mostly before the NCAA bought it in 2005 and changed the format.

Previously, the NIT, run by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, a group of five New York City colleges, was always a money-making organization.

Teams were invited and bid to host each round. In 1987, then-UALR Coach Mike Newell got some community support and the Trojans played three games at home, beating Baylor (on a controversial last play), Stephen F. Austin and California before going to New York’s Madison Square Garden and losing to LaSalle and Nebraska. The Trojans were lucky if they made $75,000 total for the five games.

Now the NCAA seeds the teams, and the highest-seeded team has the option of hosting. There are four regions, with teams seeded 1 to 8 in each.

Arkansas could be a No. 1 seed but possibly a No. 2.

Going to the NIT would be a good way for the Razorbacks to finish the season. The freshmen could gain up to five more games of playing experience, and a trip to New York would be a big reward for the seniors.

Winning the NIT does not guarantee success the next season. Baylor won it last season and finished sixth in the Big 12 this season, but it is considered likely to make the NCAA Tournament field.

Alabama went 2-1 in the NIT last season, returned three starters, but turned around and had a dismal season.

It is no guarantee the Razorbacks (21-11) will get invited.

Under the new NIT format, any regular-season conference champion that isn’t invited to the NCAA Tournament gets an automatic bid to the NIT, and as of Saturday it was looking as if there were nine of those.

Something called matrixbracket.com had the Hogs as a No. 2 seed, while Florida State, California, Minnesota (yes, who the Hogs beat early in the season) and Southern Miss were the No. 1 seeds.

That NIT bracket had four SEC teams, with LSU, Georgia and Missouri joining the Razorbacks.

Every team aches to be a part of March Madness, and in no way is this to hint the NIT has the glamour and excitement of the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT isn’t March Sadness, at least not like it was before the NCAA made it more of a tournament than a cash cow.

The games are televised on ESPN, and while you never hear anyone offer a billion dollars for a perfect NIT bracket like Warren Buffett has done for this year’s NCAA Tournament, it could be a positive for the Razorbacks, who haven’t been in postseason play since 2008.

This senior class of Hogs has never won a postseason game, and that includes SEC Tournament games, and the NIT would give them a chance to remedy that.

As of Saturday, the UA’s official website, arkansasrazorbacks.com, had the Hogs scheduled to play in Dayton, Ohio, in the NCAA Tournament this week.

More than likely the Hogs will be at home this week, against a mid-major team, and they deserve support.

If the Razorbacks can get over the disappointment of not being in the NCAA Tournament and embrace the NIT, they can have some unexpected fun to finish the season.

Sports, Pages 21 on 03/16/2014

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